Max identifies a significant problem with the Obama administration’s cancellation of the missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. His analysis is spot-on that this unrequited concession will only weaken America’s bargaining position on multiple issues. It is especially disquieting, however, that the administration has chosen to justify the decision as it has. The justification itself is logically weak, on even the most cursory inspection, since its essential assumption is that defense against a longer-range Iranian missile will not be needed on any time line relevant to current planning. There is no basis for this assumption.

The case made by the president (video here) hinges on two key premises: that the Iranian ballistic-missile threat “has not emerged” as soon as originally estimated, and that currently proven tactical antimissile capabilities are better suited and more ready for deployment against the actual threat. The latter reference is to growing success with sea-based (Aegis system) missile-defense testing, including the July intercept of a no-notice ballistic missile launch intended to simulate a North Korean missile. The Obama administration and Congress have been looking at sea-based missile-defense alternatives (see this report, for example), which, for the defense of Europe, would most likely involve Aegis-missile ship patrols in either the Black Sea or the Baltic Sea, possibly both. Additional deployments might include a ground-based antimissile system, reportedly to be put in “the Balkans, Turkey, or Israel,” and perhaps foreshadowed by the administration’s announcement last week that it is considering a $7.8 billion Patriot PAC-3 missile sale to Turkey.

This policy shift seeks the appearance of judiciousness by ignoring one major point and obfuscating others. The unaddressed point is that the missile-defense site in Europe, besides defending our European NATO allies, was intended as the “third site” in the U.S. national missile-defense (NMD) concept, providing defense against long-range missiles approaching North America through the western portion of the eastern hemisphere. In conjunction with the NMD sites oriented toward the Far East and the Arctic, at Vandenberg AFB in California and Fort Greeley, Alaska, it was to establish a comprehensive northern-latitudes defense against an initial salvo of long-range missiles. The NMD system is the only one we have that is intended to intercept intercontinental missiles in midcourse (i.e., in outer space). With this decision, we have dealt that capability away for the defense of the U.S. East Coast.

The points being obfuscated, meanwhile, are: Iran’s progress with its ballistic-missile program; the political feasibility of the implied tactical defense network for Europe against shorter-range Iranian missiles; and the rather obvious option, apparently assumed away, to pursue more than one missile-defense capability, against more distant as well as more imminent threats.

On the first point, no explicit revision has been issued by any U.S. agency of the longstanding estimate that Iran could, by 2015, develop missiles that range all of Europe (see the 2009 estimate of Air Force Intelligence). Press references to such a revision are vague and typically invoke a joint U.S.-Russian study, sponsored by the East-West Institute and released in May 2009, which concluded that the planned U.S. missile-defense installations in Europe were inappropriate to a threat that wouldn’t emerge for some time. The study, however, predicted that Iran could reach Europe with ballistic missiles within six to eight years, or in the period 2015-17.

The Joint Chiefs vice chairman, General James Cartwright, is also quoted as saying that the missile threats from Iran and North Korea “are not there yet.” The “intercontinental ballistic missile threat,” in his words, “has not come as fast as we thought it would come.” We must note, however, that no one ever expected the full threat to have emerged already in 2009. The Eastern European missile-defense sites were to be operational by 2013; on existing evidence, this timing was realistic for both the threat and our own capabilities. The worst-case estimate of 2015 for an Iranian missile ranging Europe has not been revised—nor, contrary to the implication of Obama’s announcement, is the issue here an either/or alternative between defending Europe against shorter-range missiles now and preparing for a longer-range missile threat in the future. Both requirements can be met. Going forward with the planned sites to address the future threat does not preclude the use of Patriot and Aegis systems today for shorter-range missile defense.

On the other hand, political objections from Russia might do just that. It does not seem possible that Obama’s advisers consider it more politically feasible to operate Aegis ships in the Black and Baltic Seas, in periods of heightened regional tension, than to install a radar and interceptor missiles in Eastern Europe. Certainly, shifting the Eastern European installation to “the Balkans or Turkey,” as vaguely implied in the UPI report above, would meet with at least as much resistance from Moscow. The sale of Patriot PAC-3 missiles to Turkey is not a given, nor is it a neutral idea from Russia’s perspective. Cash-hungry Moscow has for months been discussing with Ankara the sale of Russia’s most advanced air- and missile-defense system, the S-400. The two defense systems are in direct competition and represent a wider political competition over Turkey’s allegiance that Russia will not back down from. Arms sales, natural-gas politics, and regional power are all at stake for Moscow; we cannot assume either Turkey’s cooperation or Russia’s acquiescence in a Turkey-centered missile-defense concept.

The bottom line, however, is that the use of tactical missile-defense assets alone is not the most effective counter to a long-range missile threat. Obama’s action simply assumes that threat away. He is deciding not to install one of the three sites that were to give North America the most-effective defense possible against long-range missiles. The same site would have given our European allies layered and more capable protection. The decision leaves a significant geographic hole in American defenses and weakens Europe’s. The tactical alternatives Obama refers to cannot do the same job—intercepting longer-range missiles from, at a minimum, Iran—and their deployment to defend Europe would meet with much the same political resistance from Russia as the original Bush plan did. Obama is thus assuming that the job of intercepting longer-range missiles will not need doing at all, at least not on this geographic vector. It is that assumption that he and his apologists should have to defend.

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